I swear, I’m not trying to horn in on my colleagues’ territory. But the traditional relationship between film and television has reversed, as American movies have become conservative and cautious, while scripted series, on both broadcast networks and cable, are often more daring, topical and willing to risk giving offense.Mark Harris has a long piece in the current GQ about how Hollywood keeps making the same movies over and over, always trying to find the "right" demographic:
The rise of marketers has also brought on an obsession with demographics. As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, the American film-going populace is divided two ways: by gender and by age. Gender is self-explanatory (usually); the over-under dividing line for age is 25. Naturally, every studio chief dreams of finding a movie like Avatar that reaches all four “quadrants” of the audience: male and female, young and not. But if it can be made for the right price, a two- or even one-quadrant film can be a viable business proposition.This is particularly bad news for women born before 1985, by the way -- we're old & the wrong gender. If Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock isn't in it, chances are a major studio isn't making it. They forget that we can tell a good movie from a bad one. As much as I love those actresses, I won't got to see Eat, Pray, Love or All About Steve just because they're in them.
Of course TV executives are just as obsessed with ratings, demographics, and the appeal to certain subsets of the American television watching public. The great thing about TV is that there's room for everything. Period dramas on PBS, cooking shows on The Food Network, police procedurals on -- well, everywhere. There's even room for smart writing about smart people. Ross and I love The Big Bang Theory.
I understand that there are constraints to every sub-genre, and I agree that there are some truly different and unusual books out there. I have to wonder: are traditional publishers encouraging those authors, or do they have to build up a readership fast before the publisher pulls the plug in favor of the same-old-same-old?
I would be willing to bet a large amount of money that there are fresh, talented writers out there, who are writing unusual and compelling stories but finding it nearly impossible to get published because their manuscripts don't look like anything else that's already been published and sold well.
Déjà vu all over again. When I was a law student, with good grades at a top ten law school, I literally couldn't get hired. I went through two years of recruitment, with dozens of twenty-minute interviews, none of which led to call-back interviews. Why? Because I didn't look like, sound like, or behave like the other people those firms had hired.
Of course that's a defensible hiring policy: stay with what works. It leads to a very homogeneous group of associates, though. And I was "unusual" in two ways that didn't look good on the firms' recruitment brochures: I was overweight and I was old. I ended up with a job at a top-tier Philadelphia law firm solely because I got a clerkship with a judge who had been a partner at that firm. My judge knew about being different: she was the first woman appointed to the federal bench in the Third Circuit.
I'm retired from the law now but I want to write about lawyers, judges, law professors and the like. And I want them to be smart. (I don't rely on my own experience for that last element -- I always run legal arguments and scenarios past Henry, who genuinely is smart.) Yes, in order to get published, my books need to be well-written. Let's imagine that I'm accomplishing that. What if I still get rejected because when a busy agent or editor reads the first paragraph or chapter of my submission, all she thinks is, "Boy. This sure is different."
Top Gun (two good looking actors, action sequences, throbbing music video look, etc.) than take a chance on a quirky film like Inception. (Yes, they made Inception. But as Mark Harris points out, Hollywood would like to ignore Inception's success. Because it's too "hard" to figure out what made it successful and thus too hard to clone it.)
By contrast, television currently is willing to experiment, to try off-the-wall stuff. Here's Marshall Fine at HuffPo on the subject:
There are so many hours in a day and so many networks looking to fill them that strong, engaging fare seems to be on the rise. Apparently some networks finally decided, hey, maybe we can draw an audience with programming that doesn't insult viewers' intelligence. It's no more of a risk than something stupid.Don't the numbers sound familiar? If you'd read it as "there are so many romances published every year, and so many readers looking for something different...some publishers have decided, hey, maybe we can draw readers with books that don't insult their intelligence," wouldn't that have warmed your heart?
That's not what seems to be happening. Partly, I suspect, it's a matter of dollars and cents. There's a hell of a lot more profit in an hour of television than there is in any given book by a new author. Next, the current cookie-cutter approach seems to work, so why take a chance on something that breaks the mold. Plus, publishers are cutting down on the editors needed to find the unique gem in the slush pile. But at the end of the day, I think it's undeniable that editors are saying no to books you and I would love to read.
P.S. Yes. Self-publishing "solves" the problem. But how many books are you likely to want to read -- let alone buy -- to see if they're any good? At least editors get paid to read submissions...